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The Big Boys are Back
Ernie Els and Tiger Woods returned to centre stage in world golf this week. Neither was firing on all cylinders but they were generating enough power to emphasise that length, coupled with grim determination, matters. Miguel Angel Jimenez, whom Els pipped in Dubai, and Phil Mickelson, snuffed out by Woods in Florida, are not short of power or competitiveness but there was something inevitable about the big boys bettering them.

After leading for three days and having a three shot lead in the course of the last round, there was something cruel about the Jimenez defeat. Els waited 'till the last hole on the last day, and from one shot behind, before he delivered his coup de grace. After reducing this last hole to a drive and a 6-iron, Els holed an 18 foot putt for an eagle to take his third Dubai title by one shot. Jimenez had a seven-foot birdie putt for a play-off but, of course, missed it. If Els wanted to post his intentions for the year ahead he did it with some style at this last hole for his drive was long and straight and his 6-iron into the green was resolute. If anyone said that Jimenez did not deserve to lose after leading for 71 holes, Els clearly did not want to know.

Jimenez' perpetual expression of beatific serenity contrasts sharply with the inane, almost manic grin that Mickelson wears throughout good fortune and bad. Indeed, Mickelson's grin is only marginally less irritating than Woods' fist pumping when a putt falls, or glum expression when it does not. The salient emotional characteristics of these two men make for uncomfortable, albeit compulsive viewing. In contrast to the benign ongoing between Els and Jimenez at the Classic in Dubai, that between Woods and Mickelson at Doral in Florida was positively homicidal.

There is clearly no love lost between Woods and Mickelson and although the latter would like to convey his blissful unawareness of it, the former makes no attempt to hide it. This is manna from heaven for the TV executives throughout the world and the heat generated from the hand rubbing that ensued after the third round, in anticipation of the viewing figures for a final round Woods and Mickelson pairing, must have significantly contributed to global warming.

The mouth-watering prospect of Woods and Mickelson going head-to-head over the Blue Monster brought out a voraciously partisan crowd and must have commanded huge world-wide TV viewing. Rarely do such confrontations live up to expectations but this one surely did for the two reduced the `Blue Monster ' to little more than a drive, pitch n' putt course while putting on a magnificent exhibition of matchplay golf. Vijay Singh went out on 31 in the last round and Zack Johnson also put on a show but the real action was in a matchplay contest between Woods and Mickelson.

Woods started the day two behind, after a third round 62, and he remained two behind until he reached the putting surface of the 600-plus yards 12th hole with a drive and a fairway wood that flew all of 280 yards. Inevitably he holed the putt for an eagle and they were all square. Pumped up, Woods was big off the par three 13th tee and Mickelson birdied to take a shot lead again. They were back to even at the 16th tee, a 272 yards hole, which Woods had driven in the third round, but which they both scrambled to a bogey five half - golf course architects please note. Woods birdied the 17th hole from 15 feet to take a one shot lead at 24 under par onto the 18th tee, from which both launched long straight drives. Woods, playing first, left his second secure on the green, well away from the greenside lake, but some distance from the hole. Mickelson played a great shot over the flag, fractionally big, just off the green, but closer to the hole. Woods proceeded to charge his putt four feet past the hole while Mickelson chipped, cruelly shaving the hole for a play-off. Woods made his four-footer for the title and, after much fist pumping, managed a smile. Mickelson's smile, which he had worn from the first tee, never left his face.

Ernie Els will not be at Bay Hill for the Honda Classic next week. He will be supporting the European Tour while collecting substantial sums in appearance money in the Middle East. More and more of the top European Tour players are, however, finding life on the US Tour not only more attractive but also more lucrative and beneficial in accruing world ranking points. Justin Rose is the latest to relinquish his European Tour membership, opting to play on the US Tour circuit where world ranking points are readily available and thus more easily accessing entry to the major championships through the world ranking top-50 rule.

The points allocation in the world rankings is something that should be addressed. Colin Montgomerie is not yet back to his best but he is close as his four rounds in Dubai and his fourth place finish shows. Monty needs time, which he does not have, to climb back into the world's top-50 to gain admission to the TPC at Sawgrass on March 24th and the Masters after that. His scowling competitiveness will be missed for he is certainly one of the big boys.

©    8 - MARCH 2005

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